BRUSH UP YOUR SHAKESPEARE, VIRGINIA

"I have a sinking feeling that Virginia Bottomley, always depicted as something of a swot in profiles, would not recognise the concept of 'useless information' "
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The Independent Culture
T his newspaper asked Virginia Bottomley for an interview the other day. We had the usual stuff in mind: any thoughts about your new job as National Heritage Secretary, do you know your Arne from your Elgar, your Arp from your El Greco - come to that, your Bottom from your Elbow?

The answer from her office was perfectly sensible, and presumably rather similar to that issued by the offices of most other shuffled ministers - Mrs Bottomley is doing her homework right now. Please come back when she has finished. You cannot expect her to regurgitate convincing soundbites until she has digested her brief.

It's easy to understand the desire to hide away for a while - after all, ministerial reshuffles fly in the face of the conventional wisdom, that preferment in a particular field is usually linked to some accumulated expertise. The sudden change of job, then, must be a little like that commonplace nightmare, the one in which you become aware that you have to go on stage in five minutes, playing the lead in a play you've never read, let alone memorised.

Bolder souls don't let this get them down. When Alan Clark went to the Department of Defence as Minister of State he made it a point of pride to affront his civil servants by his dilatory manner. "I read Notes for Incoming Ministers in an hour and a half," he writes in his diary, "meekly and subserviently this should have taken me three days or preferably a weekend." Clark also side-steps the civil servants' "oldest, corniest trick" - mixing important documents with pointless ones in a haphazard stack. He insists on colour-coded folders, including, in a superb blasphemy against the cult of facts, orange for "useless information."

I have a sinking feeling that Virginia Bottomley, always depicted as something of a swot in profiles, would not recognise the concept of "useless information". And, to be charitable, she has particular incentives to brush up her Shakespeare. For one thing she follows Stephen Dorrell in the post, a man who even required briefings from civil servants on how to enjoy the traditional perk of the job - unlimited free tickets. His outings clearly didn't help much - at the Cannes film festival recently, it dawned on a stunned audience of cineastes that Mr Dorrell believed Jeanne Moreau, president of this year's jury, to be a man. It's understandable then that Virginia might want to put on a slightly better performance.

The defence for playing musical chairs with national affairs like this is, presumably, that some universal talent is conveyed from post to post, some heroic managerial ability. Civil servants know all but can do nothing, and it is the skill of the politician to take action. The trouble is that ministerial talent can easily begin to look a rather circular matter. Good ministers are often described as having "an amazing ability to master a brief". That is, they are good sponges. But they only have to be good sponges because of the flood of information they are repeatedly required to soak up.

In most cases, of course, information is invaluable for slowing a minister down, and as the Clark case demonstrates, the more assiduous you are, the more likely you are to be brought to a complete halt. It's to be hoped that it works with Mrs Bottomley, because the idea of her applying her dogged, "walking into the guns" spirit to the problems of Arts and Heritage is rather alarming. Will she solve the long-running problem of London's orchestras by simply closing two of them down, bussing distraught music lovers across town for their treatment? Will she address widespread anxiety about the National Lottery by attacking waiting lists - it's clear that the current 14 million week average for a jackpot prize is deemed completely unacceptable by most people. Most dramatic of all, will she institute performance tables for our major theatres, quantifying aesthetic satisfaction against the price of the tickets and the quality of the interval refreshments? (She might institute an inquiry into one of the abiding mysteries of our cultural life - why subsidised theatres sell superior ice-cream.)

It would be far better, though, if Mrs Bottomley spent all her time reading and barely any time acting. She should put her feet up for a while and simply absorb the best her civil servants can find for her. That at least would offer us the refreshing prospect of a minister educated by her post, not simply intensively briefed.

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